Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Testing some heresies, Part 5: Conclusion… Yeah right!


Here are two religious/philosophical attitudes I don't understand:

  1. I've finally figured it all out. I now have all the answers to life to the extent that a human can, and therefore I have no need of further research or analysis. I will feel comfortable arguing them down to the smallest jot and tiddle until the day I die.
  2. I can never truly know anything so why bother composing a consistent worldview?


The more I learn about the history of ideas, the more I see how ridiculous it is to think we moderns have it all figured out. I'm not studied nearly enough to be able to tell if humanity has been building progressively towards more accuracy, or simply cycling through an array of truths and falsehoods. I lean towards more truth. At least within the Church Universal. (I'm sure that's a term that's already been taken, but I plead ignorance and am using it to denote the collective of all true believers throughout time.) I think that's what all the birth-labor analogies in the Bible are pointing to. We are building towards something. I hope that my life and beliefs are a positive influence in that process.

The matter of authority and Truth

I love getting feedback from my dad; he's always very frank with me, which is not ironic at all since his name is Frank. My dad's much smarter and more learned than me and I know he loves me dearly, so I take his feedback very seriously. One of the things he warned me about was making an idol out of the Bible. By this I assume he means that the Bible is not God. And if my argument is based solely on the Bible (or my interpretation of it.) than it will be insufficient. And I agree with that. It may surprise my gentle readers to know that my regard for the Bible is probably more liberal than most. In fact, I only use the term "the Bible" out of utility rather than as an axiomatic statement. I don't think there is a "the Bible". When you consider all the books that used to be included, or were closely considered, or almost got the boot, or are only included in the Catholic version, etc. it's hard to hold to a view that what we modern Protestants have now is the perfect, written revelation of God in its entirety.

This is not only a historic problem but a philosophical one as well. If God is truly with us, still guiding and talking to us today, (As the Bible implies) than His Word is extended into every Christian. His activity would be continually broadcasting His Word, and His spirit in us would be the receiver. So to call the Bible "THE WORD OF GOD" is to undermine all the current activity He does and was promised in that "WORD OF GOD". The term implies exclusivity where there should not be, because that would exclude God's current work.

Beyond that there are issues within the text itself. There are all sorts of inconsistencies in little facts. Things like the number of demon possessed men at the tombs and details about the empty grave of Christ. There's the redundant story of David catching Saul asleep and taking something from him rather than killing him. (1 Sam. 25 & 26) You could say they are two separate accounts, but they are clearly the same story but with different details. And there is a chapter between them that continues the story, but then jumps back to where Saul is pursuing David.

These little inconsistencies lead me to two conclusions. First: not every word in the Bible is the perfect Word of God. Otherwise there would be no contradictions of any size or importance. And second: parsing the Bible into little verses is not a great way to build theology. I don't think God wants us to dissect the Bible. I think that's why He let the inconsistencies stay in there. It teaches us that we need to consider the revealed words of God as a whole. Word-by-word breakdowns don't facilitate that. And we need to consider the people who wrote those words and why. Not in the post-modern sense of determining motives and deconstructing meaning. But simply to understand that a letter written to a wayward church is different than a Jewish songbook, prophetic revelation, or traditional proverb. And you shouldn't use them all the same way when you form your doctrine. When you read a newspaper you generally assume the stories in there are fact. You repeat them to your friends as fact. You make decisions about your life based on them. (Gee, the paper says it’s going to be raining this weekend, I guess I’ll cancel my fishing trip. Or Congressman so-and-so was caught stealing lingerie, I don't think I'll vote for him again.) But when you read an advertisement, the comics, the personal classifieds, you don’t read them in the same way. You don’t assume there is a war going on simply because you read Beatle Bailey, or that the sale at Mervyn’s really is explosive. Yet there are a lot of theologies that incorporate verses from Psalms and Proverbs as though they were statements of fact rather than wise sayings and expressions of wonderment and love.

When you study the history of the Bible you see all the competing ideas. Even within the text itself you see the difference between Paul and Peter's take on things. And you see little parenthetical asides where Paul admits that what he's writing is at times his own opinion and not God's Words. And you have to wonder how anyone knew about the times where Jesus was alone, like during His temptation in the wilderness or His prayer in the garden.

None of this is meant as an attack on the validity of the Bible. I only wish to view it in the proper perspective with the rest of reality and God's revealed wisdom. I think the term "the Bible" is a bit of a misnomer but it's acceptable enough to work as a guiding principle. In other words, the Bible's not THE perfect word of God. But I think it's the best and most reliable guide we've got. And as loose as the term is, it's absolutely necessary to keep any sort of coherence within the Body of Christ. Because without an easily accessible authority that supersedes the people and organizations within Christendom you would have no Christendom.

So is the Bible the only authority in my life? No. Ultimately God should be. But how do I understand God? There are 3 ways I can think of. The Bible, the Church, and myself. And they have a lot of interplay with each other. It's quite impossible to separate them completely. I've looked at the idea of the Bible as the ultimate authority and I find it insufficient. Even if it were the perfect, unfiltered words that God spoke, it would still go through the filters of translation into my language and my receptivity to them. Which puts me squarely back to relying on myself as an authority. Because my receptivity to God's words would be affected by my upbringing, education, philosophical dispositions, personality, etc. And how is it possible that all of those elements are just right for receiving the Truth of the Bible perfectly? Well it's not possible. Or at least, highly improbable.

Now I could claim that one could simply obey the authority of the Church in order to derive proper doctrinal beliefs. But that only lasts so far as there is one church with one doctrine. This is not the case, nor has it ever been. I do believe there is a Church Universal as a spiritual entity that is the Bride of Christ. But she is far to multifaceted to derive consistent doctrinal direction. Even if I were to go back in time before the Reformation I would still have to choose between the Roman Catholic church and the Eastern Orthodox church. It’s not like you can really claim that one is ‘older’ in the sense that they are closer to the truth. And even within Roman Catholicism there is a huge variety of opinions. (My Catholic cousin was telling me about fist fights breaking out between Free Will® and Sovereignty-of-God proponents. He said the Pope had to issue some kind of decree that forced them to shut up about it for a hundred years to stop the madness!) But the crux of the matter is that it always comes down to a choice. I have to choose whose authority I will follow. And once a choice is involved, it comes back to ME. My will. My best reasoning. My best attempt at hearing God and seeking Truth. So I’m in the same position I am with Biblical authority. Don’t think for a second that I keep coming back to myself because I want to. Believe me, I want to find THE Truth and submit to it fully. Unfortunately the filter of myself is always in the way. It is inescapable for a purely logical reason.

So how to interpret the Bible, and what ecumenical authority I place myself under is subject to my best attempt at figuring it out. Which is a position that I’m not comfortable with at all! I just don’t trust myself that much. Simple observation shows that there are godly, loving, brilliant people who end up with totally different positions on these matters. If I am inclined to say that only one combination of interpretation and church is correct than I would have to write off an awful lot of great, godly people. As it turns out, I’m disinclined to do so. I recognize that better folk than I have made worse decisions than I have in certain areas of life. And I recognize that worse folk than I have made better decisions than I have in certain areas of life. How arrogant would I have to be to believe that I am the one who has figured everything out? And how foolish would I be to put myself under the authority of anyone who claims the same?

And yet, that is the implicit claim of all doctrine. Doctrine is a series of truth claims. All my thoughts and deeply held beliefs are a series of truth claims. If I can’t put my faith fully in the Bible, Church, or self, I am hopeless without the faith that God is guiding me. And I am presuming that He is using all three of those entities to do so. But if I lean too heavily on one of them I think it would collapse under the pressure. Though, if God is leading everyone who seeks Him in one direction, than how do you explain the divided state of the Church? Here's my best guess: God is NOT leading everyone in the same direction. He's leading some to know Him in a more personal way, some to know Him in a more authoritative way, some to Him in a more prophetic way, some in a radically experiential way, etc. And all of these ways of knowing Him leave errors when a human applies the lens they were given through which to see God to the rest of Him, His ways, and His people. In other words, no single human can know all there is about God in this lifetime. No human could be sufficiently suited to the task. Every person is created with a certain personality, is nurtured with a certain set of principles and outlooks, and no combination of those things will bring about a perfect knowledge of a God Who transcends all of reality.

While I fully acknowledge that I am not the best educated, most devout, most intelligent, best dressed, etc. I'm thinking that those are not the prerequisites for God's revelation. If that were the case than only rich, old, PhD professors of theology would know God well.

How do I navigate this maze towards Truth when I have an imperfect Bible, an imperfect Church, and an imperfect self? I suppose the way I frame the problem could change my thinking on it. For some reason, when I was thinking about Truth -the kind with the capitol T- I conceptualized it as a consolidated mass of data. And the pursuit of it is like an Indiana Jones movie. There is some little golden statue sitting on a pedestal in the middle of trap-laden temple. And if I can successfully navigate the pit of spikes, poison darts and swinging scythes, (possibly losing a native guide or two along the way) I will eventually find the coveted treasure… and then I will know Truth!

That may or may not be the best way to picture the search for Truth. I’m going to lay out a much less videogame-friendly format though, and see if it fits reality better. Imagine that there is a God who has always existed. Now, stop and realize that you’re lying to yourself if you think you are actually imagining that, because it’s impossible for the human brain to comprehend, since every experience we have on this earth has causes, but this God of ours doesn’t. So right there, at the very beginning of our search for Truth, we hit an unassailable chasm that we can never cross in this life. And what if God is full of such unknowable attributes? What if God is so broad and involved in every aspect of reality that His Truth is everywhere? (I'm not saying that everything is true.) Not in fullness of course. But bits of His Truth are spread throughout matter, time, and every other concept that the human brain or spirit can perceive.

If this is the case than the ‘target’ we are shooting for is much bigger and more inclusive than I had been assuming. It's not a little consolidated mass of data. This Truth can not be consolidated because it knits the universe together. This way of looking at it accounts for all the godly, loving, fruit-bearing people I know who vehemently disagree with each other on so many basic theological ideas. This is not to say that everyone is right, or no one is wrong! It is to say that everyone has different bits of a transcendent Truth that no one could fully discover. Different understandings of a God Who can not be understood fully. How could it be otherwise? (Seriously, that’s not a rhetorical question. Write me if you know.)

And if there are a variety of forms of knowing God and His Truth, and different people finding different bits of it all over, cobbling it together into doctrines, then excluding everyone else who has found different bits of God and His Truth, how could I know that I’m in the best camp, or was born into the one variation of Christianity that has the most correct doctrine? Look at the whole of history up until now. Look at all the different forms that Christianity has gone through. And imagine a thousand years from now, how many other forms it will go through. Why would I point to American evangelicals in the early 21st century as the “ones who got it right”?

This makes me less afraid of stepping outside of that box, and looking at a minority view of scripture. For surely there were many majority views throughout the history of the Church that were wrong on many levels. (Burning witches, Inquisitions, Indulgences, etc.) I don’t think I’m thumbing my nose at anyone by saying that this could easily be the case in our day an age. (Not the burning witches part… the being wrong part.) Especially when you consider the unprecedented convergence of technologies, philosophies and theologies flying around right now.

So to sum it up I will say this. I don't believe that a church doctrine and the Bible should conflict. And if they do, I will take what the Bible says over the doctrine. My dad told me not to have so little faith in the organization that gave us the Bible. I say that the worldly organization of the church that we see and understand is different than the Body and Bride of Christ. Not that they don't overlap. I believe very strongly that they do. But I also believe the church organization is composed of fallen people that do not respond perfectly to God. I don't believe this is in any way an attack. It's a simple assessment. I'm not perfect. People aren't perfect. Their organizations aren’t perfect. But God still works through them.

So I'm not saying that the Church is all wrong and it's the Whore of Babylon and it's sending people to Hell™, etc, etc. I'm saying it's imperfect and I think it's wrong about a couple things. It seems to me that a church can be wrong about things the same way a government can be wrong about things. It isn't a bad thing to evaluate your conscience and the leading of God when it comes to adhering to their statutes. In general, patriotism is good. But when your government is not good your patriotism is not good. No one would complement a Nazi for being patriot. In the same way, if a church teaches wrong things, it is not wrong to question its teachings and believe otherwise.

Tradition Vs. Truth

Here's a question for you… Do you agree with the new Bibles that have been coming out that use gender-neutral language? Calling God a her or it, and other stupid stuff that violates the original intent of the message? Imagine for a minute that these versions become the norm, and in a couple hundred years the majority of Christians believe that God is a she. In the year 2,500 it will have been an established tradition. Now imagine you are one of a few people who do a bunch of research and find out that the original language doesn't call God a her. What do you do? Do you ignore what you've learned so as to stay consistent with tradition and agree with your pastor?

Please don't argue that such a scenario could never happen. Don't say God wouldn't let the church go so far astray. Burning heretics and witches was pretty darn astray. Clearly, God let's His Bride stray from Truth. She was pretty far a field when Luther came along. He had to decide whether to follow tradition or his conscience which I believe was moved by God.

So here I am looking at the overwhelming evidence that the Church has got some things wrong. What am I to do? Well, I suppose that since the road to the place I'm at now was paved with research and prayer, I should continue that course. Perhaps it will loop back to my origin. I don't see how. But then, I'm only 31 and I'm not terribly well read.

Being divisive

Another warning my father gave me was that I was sounding divisive. After all, what does a heretic do but divide the Body of Christ. Heretical ideas are intrinsically divisive. But then, all doctrine does is divide. It says, “This and that is true, and those who don’t believe it are wrong.” There is nothing wrong with that, it’s important to divide right from wrong. But it’s also important to note that the creators of any doctrine are fallible humans. It could be argued that experience shows which doctrines are better than others, and that the experience of the Church has shown this or that to be true. That’s all well and good, but how many of those doctrines are believed by all “the Church”? Or even most of it.

Even if I decided that I had to submit to the authority of whatever church I attend, can I force myself to believe in something that I don't currently believe? I don't know if that's possible. I really doubt I could convince myself that bread and wine turn into Jesus' actual physical flesh during Eucharist. I don't think I could make myself believe that everything the Catholic Church declares true is true. I don't think I could force myself to believe that a handkerchief blessed by some televangelist will heal me. No matter how hard I tried or researched the topics, I don't think I could make myself believe them.

I think that is because, as the Bible says, faith is a gift. We can't generate it. I'm not saying that things we do can't have the effect of producing faith in us. I'm saying that those things we do are done because God gave us the inclination, will, ability, etc. to do them, thereby gaining faith. But faith in God, and faith in a specific doctrine are two separate things. You could say, as the Catholics do, that if you have faith in God you also believe that His Church is controlled by Him to speak perfectly for Him. But I think that's quite an assumption.

Outside ideas

So I’m looking at a variety of authorities and trying to figure out who to believe. The breakdown goes something like this. The established Christian authorities are united in an idea that seems to me to be entirely illogical and demeaning to God. But the opinions I’ve read that tend to agree with my thinking on the matter are from lone wolves and heretics. Ie. Universalists and the like. (Although, after looking into their beliefs I don't know if they are technically heretical. I suppose it depends on who you ask.)

So this is where things get tricky. Is it possible that a corrective voice for Christendom can come from outside of it or those marginalized by it? I suppose that depends on what you mean by “corrective”. It’s very easy to see heavy influences on Christian thought and doctrine coming from outside of the Church all throughout history. Augustine, one of the most influential theologians ever, uses copious amounts of material from the pagan Greek philosophers. Enlightenment thinking that shaped the view of the self and autonomy affected countless theologies. I’m certainly not going to condemn any of this activity. Each age has its truths and lies and no one can deny that they seep into Christendom. Martin Luther was more than marginalized by Christendom, yet he became one of the most powerful shapers of it. And let's not forget the Old Testament discipline God poured out on Israel using Babylon, Assyria, Egypt, etc. So to answer my question about correction to wrong thinking coming from outside the normal ecumenical boundaries, I would say, ‘yes, there is precedent for it, and it happens all the time.’

Of course that doesn’t mean that it’s happening on this particular issue. All I want to do is establish the possibility that these ideas could be true. The mechanism by which right thinking on any number of doctrines could have been repressed in Christendom is a separate issue which I'll look at in a bit. Like I said up front, I’m just sketching out these ideas that sound right to me. After further research they may not sound right any more.

I want to be clear that I'm not yearning for the good ol' days of Church doctrine. History and the Bible makes it clear there never were any. Right there in the Bible you can read about tons of false doctrines invading the Church from day one. So I'm not saying that if we can just learn and believe exactly what they did in the first house churches of Paul's day, than we will have the perfect essence of Christianity. I'm not claiming that every doctrine and idea since the writing of the New Testament has taken us further from God's intent. After all, I believe everything is God's intent. Some say the Church has left its roots and is fallen into apostasy. Some say it's getting better and better, being perfected with time. Well I have no way to asses either argument, as I am not God. To me, things SEEM to be getting better. We aren't burning witches any more or killing other denominations. But simple logic tells me that if the Church has made stupid, evil decisions in the past, and WE are the future's past, than we can not exempt ourselves from the mistakes of our forefathers and we too are probably making some stupid, evil decisions.

And the Church is still changing. It's being changed by culture, politics, mass media, a shifting to poor, southern hemisphere nations, etc. Mostly, I believe, we are being changed by the providence of God. We evolved out of some bad ideas and we have evolved into some bad ideas. It would not surprise me at all if the doctrine of Hell™ was something our great, great, great grandchildren look at in the same way we look at witch burnings and Indulgences. (Not that I'm equating a belief in Hell™ with those things.)

Heavy words

In my introduction I used the analogy of stone towers that represent doctrine. (I want to make sure I'm clear that I'm talking about doctrine, NOT the Church Universal itself in this analogy.) I complained about the quality of our building materials. If the scriptures we are reading in 2006 in America were a perfect translation this wouldn't be nearly the problem it is. But there is no such thing as a perfect translation. And as I've shown, there are words that have changed meanings, words that can't possibly mean what they are translated as, and words that have been redefined in the popular Bible concordances and dictionaries to fit a doctrine of heathen origin that was embraced by the church centuries after Christ. I likened these processes to corrosion and sediment. And as I've been reading the scriptures with a new outlook I'm seeing the build-up is worse than I initially thought. It's not just that specific words are turned to mean something they don't. But when doctrines are built on those redefinitions, it's necessary to read other passages differently than you would otherwise. For instance, when one reads the Bible with an Eternal Torment perspective, words like 'saved', 'fire', and 'death' take on new dimensions that were not necessarily in the mind of the writer. When you look at the context of most verses that have the word 'saved' or 'death' they are talking about temporal salvation or death. As in, "I'm drowning, save me!" Or "You will surely die." But when you apply a need to justify a doctrine that does not exist in scripture you end up reading eternity into those words. Or at least that's the way they have always been read to me. I learned to silently attach 'eternal' before 'death' whenever I read it. And 'saved' was always followed by 'from Hell™' even if it was actually followed by 'from your sins', and then I'd add 'that will send you to Hell™.' As I'm re-reading I'm seeing what a messed up way I was viewing the Bible. I'm not saying that that I now have an error-proof system for reading the Bible with zero eisegesis, I'm just saying I didn't realize how pervasive the process was. Now I can take what I've learned of that process and apply it to this new way of understanding God. Maybe as I'm reading the scriptures now I won't make so many assumptions. Here is a verse that gives me great comfort:

Pro 3:5 Trust in Jehovah with all thy heart, And lean not upon thine own understanding: 6 In all thy ways acknowledge him, And he will direct thy paths.

That's what I'm counting on. That's what gives me hope. As long as I trust and acknowledge God in all things, He will direct me. I don't have to rely on my understanding. Which is a good thing. Because the only place my understanding takes me is to more questions than answers. But I trust that even without all the answers God will still direct my paths.

Do the math

So if this idea is true what are some factors that could keep a doctrine of universal salvation from gaining traction in the Church at large? Well, I won't dare speculate concerning others since I am not them and to do so would be presumptuous and rude. Rather, I will look at my own hesitations. If you see yourself in any of these than perhaps my feelings can be projected on some percentage of Christendom.

My first hesitation I had when I discovered this idea was one of fear. Fear that I'd be insulting God. Because our understanding of Him comes a great deal from what we've been taught. And it took me a little while to understand that questioning my understanding of God is not the same as questioning God Himself. But it was a heavy weight on my mind because I've always believed that as a Christian we have The Answers when it comes to God. So examining those answers and their validity felt a bit like betraying the Organization. Like I work at the Chevy factory, but I secretly think Fords are better. Of course this is nonsense, because God is not a product that Christianity is selling. But my experience has shown me that we have cultivated a no-questions mentality in the Church. Of course, it would probably be hard to keep the organization stable if we were all supposed to be questioning everything all the time, so I don't blame the Church for this. It's simply an inevitability in any religious, political or social group.

But like many things, I think the good or ill comes from the motives. I looked at my motives for examining my understanding of God. Did I want to tear Him down, or justify myself by redefining Him? Or do I want to glorify Him with the best understanding I could find? With a clean conscience I can state that it's the later.

Besides a fear of insulting God, there was the fear of rejection. That fear reminded me of a similar situation I've heard of. I read a lot of stuff about the whole Creationism/I.D. Vs Evolution debate. One of the reasons that creationists give for the institutional tenacity of the theory of evolution is the social aspects that a dissenter has to face should they air their dissenting opinion. They get marginalized, mocked, loose the esteem of their peers, and their careers are over. There may be the same percentage of Universalists to Eternal Tormenters in the Church as there are Creationists to Evolutionists in the sciences. So I imagine the pressure to conform is similar. I'm really glad that I'm not a pastor or church leader. I can't imagine the fallout for them if they had the same issue that I'm going through. I imagine it would take the form of marginalization, mockery, loss of peer esteem, and their career would be over.

The third reservation I had was the institutional momentum. The notion of Hell™ has been pervasive in Church thinking for over 1,500 years. So it's no surprise that Strong's Greek dictionary and most of the other recourses that Christians use to study the Bible will have biases towards the doctrine. It's no surprise that they render the Greek word aion as eternal even though it's demonstrably untrue. And why would any Christian think that their Greek dictionary would have errors? I wouldn't have thought so had it not been pointed out to me.

The last hesitation I'm listing barely qualifies, but I figure I'll throw it out there. It's just a lot of darn work to rethink doctrine. To restudy and reevaluate all your past assumptions takes a lot of time and effort. I think the vast majority of people would find this process really difficult. The reason I said it barely qualifies for me is that God has put a ferocious appetite for study and prayer in me as of late. And my only issue with tackling such an endeavor are the constraints of the reality of having a wife, kids, job, and trying to start a business.

So there you have it. Fear + Fear + Assumptions + Laziness = Quite the barrier for one to overcome if they want to believe in Christian Universalism. That's assuming they've even heard the idea. Like I said, this is MY equation. Your's could be completely different and I'm not judging you at all if you have better reasons than I for not making the leap.

At this point I'd like to praise my parents. Thank God for the amazing, loving parents He gave me. That is one fear I never have… I'm never worried that my beliefs would cause them to stop loving me no matter how foolish they think that I am.

A test of spirit

We are told to worship God in spirit and in truth. One without the other is close to useless. But like I stated earlier, we can't understand the whole truth of God. But we sure should try. I think the biggest impediment to finding the truth is our spirit. And by that I mean our attitudes, emotions, and preconceptions. Everyone wants to find a truth that complements those preconceptions. Vengeful people want vengeful truth, proud people want proud truth, etc. And so as they look through the facts of life all around them, they cling to whatever they find that justifies whatever attitude their spirit has. The temptation when reading the Bible is to insert your own desires into the words. To eisegetically massage the ideas until they meet your expectations. So a thorough examination of your expectations is always in order. That's why I've been praying so hard as I study these things, asking that God would not let me bring any kind of baggage into it.

I can think of a couple of motives that people could have that would incline them to believe in the restoration of all humanity rather than eternal torment. Inclinations that would tempt them to force scripture to bend to their will. Things like the loss of a loved one in suicide. Or a desire to do whatever they want and still go to heaven. Or laziness towards the great commission. Or the idea of being one of a select few who have uncovered a secret that the rest of Christendom hasn't figured out. Or discomfort at the thought of a God who would punish people. (Although that's not Christian Universalism's stance at all.) Or an attitude of resentment towards established religion. Or a desire dance in elysian fields with Attila the Hun… I'm running out of motives here. Anyway, I'm going through all these and not finding a trace of any of those things in my spirit. Of course most people are blind to their own shortcomings, and I'm not ruling out that possibility in this case. But what I feel like I really want, most of all, is to serve a God Who is as perfect as He says He is. And I feel like our doctrines of Hell™ and Free Will® steals that from Him. So I can not in good conscience continue to propagate those ideas.

Of course, I'll be the first person to acknowledge that people's opinions and beliefs change all the time. And as I grow spiritually, mature, and learn more, God may show me that I'm wrong, at which time I will acquiesce. But at this point I feel very sure that He is showing me this Truth about Him. Why He is showing me this, and not my pastor, parents, or the Pope is a great question and one that deserves contemplation and prayer. But the sense I get is that they have seen Truths about God that I haven't seen. And not all Christians end up seeing the same Truths about God in this life. I'm sure that I have tons of misperceptions about God that other Christians don't. And I'm willing to believe that God could be showing me things that other Christians – indeed most other Christians - have misperceptions about.

I don't like that position. I'd rather have God give one long, systematic theological syllogism to all Christians at the time of their conversion. But He doesn’t. He let's some be born into poverty in Calcutta then learn about Jesus from a Baptist missionary who was shot in Vietnam and has some racial prejudices. He let's other's be born into rich families, inherit their wealth, go to Harvard and learn about Jesus from a Campus Crusades for Christ gathering. He let's some be born into royalty and learn about Jesus from their Catholic schooling. And all of these people will have very different ideas about Who Jesus is and what He's like. And apparently that's ok.

I don't like not believing what my pastor, parents, and Pope say about Hell™. I'd love to think that they have everything figured out. But simple logic tells me there is no way they could possibly have everything figured out. Sure, there are broad strokes that connect us. There is a Mere Christianity. There is a Church Universal. But I don't think any of us understands what those things truly are. In the preface to Mere Christianity Lewis imagines a hallway(Christianity) with many doors (denominations). A new convert comes into the hallway and should find the door that God is calling them to enter. In this imaginary house I would end up in the broom closet.

So now I'm in a spot I really don't like. But I don't feel like I've come here on my own. I feel like I was led here. Now I am in communion with those who disagree with me on a fairly fundamental issue. When it comes to Free Will® they just think I'm kooky. But when it comes to Hell™ I'm downright dangerous. Because if it is like they say, I'm quite a fool for defying it. And I'd be downright evil if I ever told anyone it wasn't real.

On the other hand, if I tell people about the Good News, but it's news that I don't believe is good, how is that going to help anyone?

So if this rejection of a doctrine takes me out of communion with those I love it behooves me to ask if it's a necessary step. Can I choose to just ignore my conscious on this matter for the sake of unity? I know Martin Luther went through these pains. Now… I've read Martin Luther, and I sir, am no Martin Luther. I would never presume that. I only identify with his quandary.

Of course I have no desire to be contentious, and would love to be at peace with everybody. But like I've explained, I don't think I can simply decide to change what I believe just to get along. I fully recognize the idea of doing what you don't feel like doing. That's a healthy thing and God expects that from us often. But what about doing what you don't believe in? Or believing in something when everything within you tells you it's wrong?

My problem is that I've seen God work in my life in amazing ways that are unmistakable to me. I'm finally starting to recognize God's peace when a thing is right. And that's just what I'm feeling about this. I hate to rely on my feelings, but think I may be slighting God with that bias against feelings. Especially when they line up with scripture as beautifully as I see them do.

I think I misspoke when I said I don't like the spot I'm in now. What I mean is that I don't like that appearance that it creates: the appearance that I'm some spiritual genius that figured out what my pastor, parents and Pope never did. But on the other hand, as I'm writing this I'm feeling like God is telling me that the love He puts in me will counteract any imperceptions others may have of me. And the love that He put in my pastor. And the love that He put in my parents. And I don't have to worry about the Pope because I'll probably never meet him. So I feel like God is telling me everything is going to be all right. And I feel like that is conformation that I'm not deceiving myself about this Hell™ thing.

Or maybe He's saying that Love covers a multitude of sins. Or I could just be full of crap.

I'll level with you. I hope that God is a certain way. I think we all do. Of course no one in the world knows exactly what God is like. Everyone has experiential or philosophical reasons to believe that God is the way they see Him. Here is what I hope… I hope that God is loving, rational, consistent, just, and all-powerful. If He is that way, I will die a very happy man. I see Him described that way in the Bible. And I seek to conform my philosophy and theology to that description of Him. If I encounter an idea that seems to me to be contrary to that idea of God, I will argue against it as I just have with the doctrines of Free Will® and Hell™. If man has a will that can overpower God's will than God is, by definition, not all-powerful. If God will torture a being infinitely more than the sins they committed, He is not just, rational, or loving. I admit that there could be some way these logical contradictions exist, and if there were a clear and focused argument for them in the Bible I would have to accept those contradictions as unknowable. But when there is a strong case to be made from scripture and logic against these ideas, I see it as a duty to defend them.

If I'm going to err on one side or the other, I will choose to err on the side of God's unlimited grace, love, and forgiveness rather than on His wrath, anger and indignation. Obviously I don't want to err on any side, and I am currently convinced that the eventual salvation of all IS a proper, scriptural balance. But as with all beliefs, the fruit will be the evidence of the righteousness of the root. (And I have to tell you, I've never been more at Peace with God and those around me than I am now.) If should I fail to increase in good works and love towards others, or should I fall away from faith in Christ, then let this essay be a warning to all Christians who would head down this road. But if the opposite occur: if the joy of God and faith that I feel as a result of this idea propels me to great works that are blessed by God, than I hope that my life will be an equally powerful testimony to the power of faith in an all-powerful God who saves all!

Monday, August 28, 2006

Testing some heresies, Part 4: So what is this place called Hell™?


Before I start let me lay down a simple outline, lest you think that my arguments in the beginning are the meat of my objections to Hell™. Here's the basic premise for this essay:

  1. Our current conception of Hell™ shrieks out of tune with the rest of scripture. Besides contradicting the way God describes Himself, the idea is also amazingly sparse and marginal for a concept that would be the most important thing to a human ever.
  2. The word Hell™ has evolved from its original meaning and the fact that it is retroactively applied to the words Sheol and Hades is misleading.
  3. The words that have been translated as forever and eternal, etc. are shown over and over again not to mean those things. They are selectively translated to mean eternal only when applied to death and Hell™.
  4. Jesus taught using parables, analogies and metaphor. The fact that He talks about Jerusalem's burning junk yard and uses it as a symbol for judgment does not mean we should build doctrine about a junk yard.
  5. Modern Hell™ doctrine combines descriptions of distinct places and ideas, ignoring parts that don't fit with the idea of a fiery Hell™. Sheol and Hades are synonyms, but their description does not fit the Hell™ idea at all. Geenna, Tartarus, and the Lake of Fire are all separate things. In fact, Hades (Hell™) is thrown into the Lake of fire.
  6. All of this sloppy scholarship has led to sloppy doctrine that insults God and mocks the sacrifice of Jesus as inadequate to do what He says it does.

I'm putting a trade mark insignia next to the word Hell™ because its specific meaning in modern pop culture has been shaped by the imagination of the Church so much. I'm not saying the Church is evil or anything. What I'm saying is the Church Universal owns the rights to our current conception of Hell™ thanks to Dante's Inferno, televangelists, and Catholic schoolbooks. I've never liked that conception, and always knew it was taken too literally, (ie. Literal fire.) but figured that since it's in the Bible it must be true. (Since almost everything else in the Bible has been experientially or conceptually proven to me.)

You know where assumptions get you…

Well, I think there are a couple of assumptions that form this picture of Hell™. First there is the childish assumption that Hell™ is a physical place and the fire described in relation to it is physical. Personally, I don't know many (if any) Christians who subscribe to this, but it is a pervasive concept none-the-less, so I'll quickly address it. I think the desire to spatially locate Hell™ -and heaven for that matter- is due to our brains developing in a three-dimensional environment. There are many assumptions about life in our physical world. If there is a place, you can 'go' there. It takes time to get there. You may have to go around things to get there. The type of environment you are in will determine the type of locomotion you have to engage in to arrive at your location. If there are people in the way you have to ask them to move or go around them. But once we are spiritual beings in spiritual bodies, (like it says in 1 Cor. 15) who knows how many -if any- of those factors will still exist? Contrary to that popular worship song, it is something we can NOT imagine. That is why all of the language in the Bible about heaven and Hell™ is so clearly symbolic. Heaven won't have streets made out of gold! Gold is a mineral composed of physical matter. Streets of gold can clearly be seen as showing that what we value most on earth will be valued least in heaven. You know, the first shall be last…? God's throne won't be made of emerald. There won't be a sea of glass. All of those words point to a spiritual reality that is greater than our reality. They are true, but not literally true. It is true that my wife is hot, but not literally true. (Unless she has a fever.) So why is it that when flames are talked about in Hell™ we assume that they are fire just like we have here on earth? Instead, why don't we look at how fire is used symbolically in the rest of scripture? I'll come back to this later.

The next assumption, is in my opinion, one of the biggest, brashest assumptions that Christianity has ever made. The assumption that once you die that is IT! No more chances. Who cares if you were born on an island 4,000 years ago without any possibility of hearing about Jesus? You're going to HELL™! Who cares if you live in a communist country where Christianity was outlawed and you didn't hear the one missionary who snuck into the country? You're going to HELL™! Who cares if you were molested by a priest and you associated the God of Christianity with that experience? You're going to HELL™! Who cares if you sincerely sought after Truth all your life, but couldn't find it in Christianity because of a contradictory doctrine about eternal torment justified by a loving God? You're going to HELL™!

Again… The Bible says you can not earn faith, or generate it on your own. Faith is a gift from God. Faith is the only way to salvation. Yet we say that if God chooses not to give faith to an individual in this life, they are damned to eternal torture. THAT – DOES – NOT – COMPUTE! To soften this harsh idea -to coat the bitter pill- we've come up with a couple of work-around solutions that have no basis in the Bible whatsoever. Things like the ‘age of accountability’. So we don't have to think about babies and 3-year-olds screaming in agony for all eternity. As though a hardened criminal screaming in agony for all eternity is that much easier to swallow. I'm sorry, but if I had to watch someone being tortured, I don't care how much I hated them or they had hurt me, I would want it to stop pretty fast. I guess I must be more compassionate than God. OR maybe we are a bit confused in our doctrines in a way that demeans God and brings Him down to our level and lower.

Besides the 'age of accountability', (Which, according to the Bible, is a fallacy since humans can not be accountable for their salvation since it is God Who chooses who get's saved through the gift of His faith.) there is some kind of vague idea that a deistic worldview can be gleamed from nature itself. Of course this is true and Biblical as shown in

Psa 97:6 The heavens declare his righteousness, And all the peoples have seen his glory.

And

Act 17:27 that they should seek God, if haply they might feel after him and find him, though he is not far from each one of us:

And

Rom 1:20 For the invisible things of him since the creation of the world are clearly seen, being perceived through the things that are made, even his everlasting power and divinity; that they may be without excuse:

What this has to do with salvation is anyone's guess. Paul is talking about these people:

Rom 1:18 For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who hinder the truth in unrighteousness;

So, basically, it sounds to me like he's saying that there are bad people who hinder the truth, and they don't have an excuse for doing so. Nature itself testifies to a creator-god. Those who say and act against that intrinsic knowledge do not have an excuse, so it is appropriate for God to be upset with them.

But this doesn’t really help anyone attain salvation does it? (According to modern evangelical doctrine.) Looking at the sky and understanding that someone made it is not the same as accepting Jesus as your Lord and Savior. So if our chicken thief from China understands that the earth was obviously created, she is no less damned than if she believed in humanistic evolution.

I'm not sure where the idea that this life is our only chance to gain salvation came from. I know proponents of the idea point to:

Heb 9:27 And inasmuch as it is appointed unto men once to die, and after this cometh judgment;

Well I might as well point out that first comes love, then comes marriage, then comes a baby in a baby carriage. There are certainly a few steps in-between those events. Stating an order does not exclude other steps. Then there is the question of what exactly happens at the Judgment. What is the lake of fire and what does it do? I'll be getting to that near the end.

Every knee shall bow

The Bible is very, very clear that Jesus is the only way to heaven. He is the narrow gate. No one gets to the father except through Him. The Bible is also clear that everyone will know Him at the final resurrection. Not only will they know Him, but they will acknowledge His lordship. This is a mind-blowing thing to me. This is a profound spiritual development that occurs after death! So why are we insisting that any profound spiritual development regarding salvation HAS TO occur before death? Where does it say that in the Bible? If it’s not in the Bible, who has experience to back up that claim? No one possibly can! No one has attended the final resurrection of the dead and final judgment. History isn’t over yet.

The way that verse was always painted for me was of an angry God, not unlike a dictator, forcing all men to their knees to worship Him. “If you don’t bend your knees, He will break them!” He will make us pay Him lip service even though we don’t mean it, like when I make my son apologize to his brother for hitting. I question that rendition of the event. I don’t think anyone is going to be stubborn when they see God in His glory. I have a feeling we are all going to be doing what Paul did when Jesus appeared to him. We will fall on our faces in reverence and we will love Him. Honestly… what Christian thinks that you can see God and not love Him? He is what we lack. He is the consummation of our every desire and longing! I don’t care how evil you were when you were on earth, when you see God you will see your Love. How else would we be saying that "to the glory of God" as the verse states? No one will be paying lip-service, we are all going to mean it with all of our being: “Jesus, You ARE my LORD!” The only reason every person on earth is not doing that now is because GOD SUBJECTED US TO VANITY! (Rom. 8:20) He hardens our hearts, stiffens our necks, and makes us unable to see Him. That is so opposite to what I've been taught all my life about Jesus standing there, hoping we would turn away from ourselves toward Him. But that's not the picture presented in Bible.

Rom 8:20 For the creation was subjected to vanity, not of its own will, but by reason of him who subjected it, in hope 21 that the creation itself also shall be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the liberty of the glory of the children of God. 22 For we know that the whole creation groaneth and travaileth in pain together until now. And not only so, but ourselves also, who have the first-fruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting for our adoption, to wit, the redemption of our body.

Mark 6:52 for they understood not concerning the loaves, but their heart was hardened.

John 12:40 He hath blinded their eyes, and he hardened their heart; Lest they should see with their eyes, and perceive with their heart, And should turn, And I should heal them.

This would an awfully wicked thing for God to do if the result was eternal Hell™. It would even be wicked if there was no afterlife. But if it is part of a beautiful process - something like childbirth bringing us into God's family - than the pain is more than worth it. Because…

2Co 4:17 For our light affliction, which is for the moment (This life on earth) , worketh for us more and more exceedingly an eternal weight of glory;

God hardening our hearts and blinding our eyes also flies in the face of a philosophy that says WE control our destiny. We can't have Free Will® if God is tripping us up all the time, can we? Well, who are you going to believe, your carnal mind that tells you it's obvious that you are the master of your own destiny, or the Word of God?

Now back to Judgment Day… When we give an account of every awful thing we ever did, it will be within the context of Jesus as our Lord. When He separates the sheep from the goats, when He tells those who did wonders in His name but never knew Him to depart, when He casts those who’s names are not written in the Book of Life into the lake of fire, it will all be in the context of Jesus as our Lord. So, tell me… Does it make sense that Jesus -when looking at the ‘goats’ that he decided not to give the gift of faith to during their earthly life, those who's hearts HE hardened and eyes HE blinded, who are now realizing just how wrong they were, and professing Him as their Lord- will now send them away to be tortured forever?

The flinch test

Well, since I don't want this to be a plea to emotions, I should look at all the Biblical evidence for or against this. But since Jesus, Paul and the rest of those whose words are in the Bible never spoke English it becomes trickier than I would like. Our translations lead us to, or instantiate our doctrines. So if our doctrines are less-than-perfect -which I hope every Christian can admit- it will show with a simple reading of the Bible

For me, the most powerful test of doctrine is what I would call the "Flinch Test". I read the Bible, and the less I flinch, the better my doctrine. The more times I read a verse that makes me pause and say, "Hrm… That really doesn’t make sense according to my understanding of things." Well in that case I figure it means instead of ignoring or minimizing those verses, I need to change my understanding. This is what prompted this whole reevaluation in the first place. I kept flinching while reading the Bible. I figure there are two reasons this could be happening. First, it could be because there is some evil inside me that is repulsed by the Truth. Or second, it could be that the theological framework that I'm in is insufficient or flawed in some other way.

Now if I read something like, "For God so loved the world that He…" and flinched, I could see #1 being a valid reason for my flinching. Or, "For grace you are saved, through faith…" I'm not ruling out the possibility that I'm just rebellious against the Truth. But I don't see that in myself. I feel very drawn to finding the truth through Christ. I don't have an ax to grind with anyone or any group. I have nothing to prove to anyone. I'm not coming out of hurt or bitterness. I just want to consistently feel like I can embrace every concept I read in the Bible without flinching. And that's why I'm examining my theological framework so closely.

So what does the Bible say about Hell™? Or another way of looking at it is: what doesn’t the Bible say about Hell™? Well, from my studies so far it appears that we are in an unfortunate position in this day and age. The word Hell™ has taken on a life of its own over the past several hundred years. Back in the day, before spelling was uniform, (Those were the days!) the English word hell was the noun form of the older Anglo-Saxon verb, 'hele' which meant to bury, hide, or conceal. Which, it turns out, is a pretty good translation of the word Hades from the Greek, and Sheol from the Hebrew. You don't have to be a scholar to look at all the times the word Sheol is used in the OT to get a pretty good idea of what it means just from its context. (I'll show some examples in a sec.) The Jews around Jesus' time had been universally translating the Hebrew word Sheol to the Greek word Hades in their writings, so that link is established well. When OT verses are quoted in the NT they replace the word Sheol with Hades as in Acts 2:27. So when Jesus used the Greek word 'Hades' we can be pretty sure he was meaning Sheol because that's how the word had been translated for a couple hundred years. So let's look at what Sheol means, so we can know what Jesus meant when He used the word Hades.

Here is a list of attributes for Sheol according to context: (taken from L. Ray Smith)

· darkness, corruption, worms, rest in dust (Job 17:13-16)

· down to sheol is DEATH and up from sheol is to MAKE ALIVE (I Sam. 2:6)

· a CHANGE must come to live again (Job 14:14)

· no thanks in sheol (Psalm 6:5)

· it is silent in sheol (Psalm 31:17)

· the DEAD are in sheol (Psalm 9:18)

· souls are REDEEMED from sheol (Psalm 49:15)

· there is no work, device, knowledge or wisdom in sheol (Ecc. 9:10)

· no praise in sheol (Isa. 38:18—not even from the RIGHTEOUS who are there)

· God will RANSOM souls from sheol (Hosea 13:14)

· sheol is a place of DEATH (Psalm 55:15)

· the DEAD are in sheol (Psalm 139:8)

· God is in sheol (Psalm 139:8)

· God will DESTROY sheol (Hosea 13:14)

Here is what is not found in Sheol:

1. condemned souls

2. devils

3. eternal punishment

4. Satan

5. separation from God

6. evil

7. misery

8. discord or destruction

9. torment

10. anguish

So how did that turn into our current conception of Hell?

Hell™ as the great payoff

The idea of judgment after death is first recorded in Egypt and has all the expected trappings. A supernatural judge weighs the good you did against the bad you did and sentences you to a good place or a bad place. Sound familiar? Sounds like the way most people interpret Christianity. That's where the whole, "I'm a good person" argument comes from. I think the idea of a post-mortem judgment is a natural one, since not many people are under the impression that life is fair. It is comforting to think that the tyrant who stole your land, enslaved your children and added your wife to his harem, will get his just desserts in the end. He may be living in luxury till a ripe old age, but just wait until he dies and he'll be suffering for what he did.

The fact that this idea is a natural one does not by any means prove it false. After all, the belief that a god created us is a natural one. The question a prudent Christian should ask is whether the idea is part of that collection of the "invisible things of Him" mentioned in Romans. Is the idea of hell intuitive because it is fact, and therefore woven into our understanding by the Creator, or is it simply a product of wish-fulfillment? Well, if it is a fact that those who do not love God, or those who disobey His commands are to spend eternity burning, I'm pretty sure He would warn us of that in His holy scriptures, right?

Remember when God made humans, put them in a garden with a tree He told them not to eat of, and warned them about it? Remember the part where He said if you eat of it you will die and then burn in agony forever? No, He just said "You will die." How about when Cain killed Able and God told him as punishment he would wander the earth? Cain said the punishment was too severe! Exile for premeditated murder is too severe? So God said, "Nope, not only are you exiled, but when you die you will burn in Hell™ forever!" No wait… He didn't say that. Instead He implicitly agreed with Cain and marked him so that no one would kill him. Look at Noah warning the people of earth that if they didn't change their ways God would kill them and then they would be burned alive for all eternity. No wait… He just said they would perish. Moses told the people of Israel to obey God or they would toasted eternally. No… Just die. God tells His people over and over and over through prophets, kings, and inspired poetry and proverb that when you obey God you prosper and when you disobey God you will suffer and die. Never once mentioning a future of agony after death. Of course, that's all Old Testament stuff. And it's clear that God has revealed Himself over time, progressively showing us His attributes and character. But does that excuse His silence on a matter this profound? I mean… who cares about blessing and cursing in this life if it's just a flash in the pan and then we spend eternity in agony? Well I've heard it said that those before Christ have a different deal than we do. (Dispensationalism) Then there is a tradition that says Jesus went to Hell™ and gave all those folks a chance to repent and come to heaven with Him. (based on 1 Pet 3:19-20 which actually only mentions the people in Noah's day.) So that means that after the wonderful sacrifice of Jesus, things just got infinitely worse for mankind. Now there are no more chances. Now a chicken thief in China who never hears of Christ will be roasted alive forever. Wow. That's "good news", huh?

So we have a tradition that shows Christ having mercy after death 2,000 years ago… but we think it's ridiculous that He would do the same thing again. Where is the logic in that? Where is the Love in that? And most importantly, where is the scripture in that?

Well, now we have to examine the New Testament to see how this whole Hell™ mess came about.

The Bible says that "The wages of sin is eternal torment in Hell™" No. It says:

Rom 6:23 For the wages of sin is death; but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.

It's interesting to me that Paul would leave out such an obvious counterbalance here. Any modern Christian rephrasing that would say, "Sin brings eternal Hell™, God brings eternal Heaven." Why didn't Paul say that? He didn't even say the "death" was eternal. Before that he says:

Rom 6:21 What fruit then had ye at that time in the things whereof ye are now ashamed? for the end of those things is death.

Bad fruit – sin – ends in death. It ends there. As in: that's the finality of it. God said you sin and you die. That's the cost. Death. Period. Just because we've been taught to mentally insert the word 'eternal' before 'death', doesn’t mean it's so.

Besides the deafening silence about Hell™ in the Old Testament. Let's hear what's not said in the New. Our first example is when Jesus is starting His ministry. He walks into the Synagogue at Nazareth and reads from Isaiah:

Luke 4:18 The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, Because he anointed me to preach good tidings to the poor: He hath sent me to proclaim release to the captives, And recovering of sight to the blind, To set at liberty them that are bruised, 19 To proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord. 20 And he closed the book, and gave it back to the attendant, and sat down: and the eyes of all in the synagogue were fastened on him. 21 And he began to say unto them, To-day hath this scripture been fulfilled in your ears.

So Jesus announces His mission. He is healing and releasing captives. From Hell™? Well He doesn’t mention that. In fact, look at where Jesus stops reading…

Isa 61:2 to proclaim the year of Jehovah's favor, and the day of vengeance of our God

Why did He stop reading in the middle of the sentence, leaving out the vengeance part? If He came to save us from the wrath of God in an endless Hell™ that sure would have been a good time to say so.

Act 3:26 Unto you first God, having raised up his Servant, sent him to bless you, in turning away every one of you from your iniquities.

Jesus was sent to save us. From Hell™? No, from our iniquities.

Gal 1:4 who gave himself for our sins, that he might deliver us out of this present evil world, according to the will of our God and Father:

This present evil world? What about the future evil world of Hell™?!

Tit 2:14 who gave himself for us, that he might redeem us from all iniquity, and purify unto himself a people for his own possession, zealous of good works.

1Pe 3:18 Because Christ also suffered for sins once, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God; being put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit;

Mat 1:21 And she shall bring forth a son; and thou shalt call his name JESUS; for it is he that shall save his people from their sins.

I was shocked as I looked for any reference to Jesus saving us from Hell™. It seems like the whole doctrine is based on inference! The Bible never says Jesus saves us from Hell™. You can read into the text the idea that saving us from our sins saves us from Hell™, but the connection is never made anywhere in scripture. You can approach it like a logic puzzle and say that sins = Hell™ therefore Jesus saving us from our sins means He also saves us from Hell™. And that would work fine if the concept of Hell™ as a permanent abode of the wicked were actually Biblical. But it's not as I will soon show.

If everlasting Hell™ is true than it is the most important thing in the Bible. It should be the biggest focus, the primary message. It shouldn't be left to inference! And why, in all the exhortations to live holy, moral lives, can I find none of the authors warning of Hell™ as motivation? It's always stuff along the lines of be good because that's what God calls us to. I can't find anything along the lines of not being bad so you won't go to Hell™. The closest there is would be Jesus admonitions to self-mutilation (why do we take the self-mutilation part figuratively, but the burning part literally?) and the warning against false prophets in 2 Peter 2:4 where it says:

2Pe 2:4 For if God spared not angels when they sinned, but cast them down to hell (tartaroō), and committed them to pits of darkness, to be reserved unto judgment;

Here Peter is refereeing to a Greek idea of a fiery section in Hades. And he's talking about angels. And they don't stay there forever, they await judgment. I'll be getting into the different words and ideas behind Hell™, Hades, Tartaroo, and Geenna in a second. But my point is that there is never a connection made between the salvation of Christ and being saved from Hell™. Rather, we who are saved are made first fruits, and are freed from sin in this life.

Then there is this beauty:

Luk 13:23 And one said unto him, Lord, are they few that are saved? And he said unto them, 24 Strive to enter in by the narrow door: for many, I say unto you, shall seek to enter in, and shall not be able. 25 When once the master of the house is risen up, and hath shut to the door, and ye begin to stand without, and to knock at the door, saying, Lord, open to us; and he shall answer and say to you, I know you not whence ye are; 26 then shall ye begin to say, We did eat and drink in thy presence, and thou didst teach in our streets; 27 and he shall say, I tell you, I know not whence ye are; depart from me, all ye workers of iniquity. 28 There shall be the weeping and the gnashing of teeth, when ye shall see Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob, and all the prophets, in the kingdom of God, and yourselves cast forth without

Oh, I guess they went to Hell™. Or did they?

29 And they shall come from the east and west, and from the north and south, and shall sit down in the kingdom of God. 30 And behold, there are last who shall be first, and there are first who shall be last.

I could be wrong, but it sounds like in the great reversal of heaven, those who thought they had it all (the Jews and other legalists) end up in last place. (And nowhere does it indicate that last place is in Hell™. Jesus was speaking to Jews, and this saying echoes what almost all of his parables say: the Jews thought God was all theirs, but since they had turned from Him in their hearts He will now bring in the Gentiles as His people, much the consternation of the Jews. You see this in the parable of the wedding feast, the prodigal son, the worker's wages, Lazarus and the rich man, etc. Some of them end with wailing and gnashing of teeth. Does this mean that the Jews are going to Hell™? I don't know… does God keep His promises or not? Or do the flames and weeping and wailing symbolize the shock and horror that the Jewish people will experience when they realize the "filthy dogs" they looked down upon are sitting at the head of the table, and they at the bottom?

Jesus' use of pagan ideas in teaching

Jesus mentions the Babylonian god of filth and flies: Beelzebub.

Mat 10:25 It is enough for the disciple that he be as his teacher, and the servant as his lord. If they have called the master of the house Beelzebub, how much more them of his household!

He mentions the god of riches: Mammon.

Mat 6:24 No man can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to one, and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon.

And there is the obvious use of the word and concept of Hades. Jesus used the word several times. Do you think he agreed with the Greeks about their afterlife scenarios?

Mar 9:47 And if thine eye cause thee to stumble, cast it out: it is good for thee to enter into the kingdom of God with one eye, rather than having two eyes to be cast into hell(geenna); 48 where their worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched.

Did you know He was quoting:

Isa 66:24 And they shall go forth, and look upon the dead bodies of the men that have transgressed against me: for their worm shall not die, neither shall their fire be quenched; and they shall be an abhorring unto all flesh.

Mat 10:28 And be not afraid of them that kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul: but rather fear him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell(geenna).

Isa 10:18 And he will consume the glory of his forest, and of his fruitful field, both soul and body: and it shall be as when a standard-bearer fainteth.

Here is where geenna comes from:

γέεννα

geenna

gheh'-en-nah

Of Hebrew origin ([H1516] and [H2011]); valley of (the son of) Hinnom; gehenna (or Ge-Hinnom)

It used to be called Topheth. Some horrible pagan rituals were held there. Babies and children were sacrificed.

Jer 19:12 Thus will I do unto this place, saith Jehovah, and to the inhabitants thereof, even making this city as Topheth:

Jer 19:6 therefore, behold, the days come, saith Jehovah, that this place shall no more be called Topheth, nor The valley of the son of Hinnom, but The valley of Slaughter.

So what it comes down to is this: Geenna/Hinnom/Topheth/city dump was an awful place and made a great symbol for the misery of judgment. Everyone knew about it. It was right there. They saw the corpses and trash that was always kept burning. But they also knew that when they died they were not going to be in a burning garbage heap for all eternity. They knew Jesus was using it as a metaphor for the shame, anguish and pain that judgment of the wicked would bring.

Jesus spoke to people on their level. He seldom bothered to correct their misperceptions. He would even use their misperceptions to berate them! Look at what He told the Pharisees when they were slandering Him for hanging out with "sinners":

Mat 9:13 But go ye and learn what this meaneth, I desire mercy, and not sacrifice, for I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.

That's right. He said He wasn't calling the "righteous". And He was referring to his accusers, the Pharisees, whom he calls "brood of vipers", "hypocrites", "whitewashed graves", etc. They were anything BUT righteous!

Jesus called a gentile woman who was worshipping Him a dog!

Mat 15:26 And he answered and said, It is not meet to take the children's bread and cast it to the dogs.

Did He really consider her a gentile dog?

Mat 15:28 Then Jesus answered and said unto her, O woman, great is thy faith: be it done unto thee even as thou wilt. And her daughter was healed from that hour.

No. Most of his parables were about the reversal of this idea that the gentiles were filthy dogs. Yet He speaks on the level of the people of the time according to their understanding, even when their understanding is patently wrong!

If I were teaching about morality or generosity, and used the example of Santa Claus as someone who gives without receiving, that wouldn't mean I believe in Santa Claus. I would be using a name that I knew would evoke an idea in my listeners' minds. "We should be as generous as Santa", does not mean the speaker believes in him. When Jesus talks about the burning trash pile in the valley, He wasn't saying it was Hell™. When Peter talks about angels being sent to Tartaroo He wasn't proposing that the Greek idea of a fiery pit in Hades was the correct view. They were both using common cultural concepts that fit the point they were making. The fact that NT writer's use the word Hades at all, while rejecting the Greco-Roman theology proves this. To believe otherwise is to introduce all sorts of contradictions into the Bible. Unless you think that God inspired the Greeks, Romans and Egyptians to come up with the concept of Hell™ specifically so the idea could infiltrate Jewish thought and be rolled into Christian theology. And if you believe that than what is your reasoning, and how would you separate all the other pagan ideas that were foisted on the Church like all those Gnostic and Dionysian doctrines? It's a double standard to say that Jesus and the NT authors agreed with and taught the pagan Hell™ myth of their day, but none of the other pagan myths.

When Jesus speaks what we would call doctrine, He is very straightforward about it. It's always got an "I tell you the truth…" or "Verily, verily I say unto you…" But when does He ever address Hell™ in this manner? Again: if Hell™ is what we Christians say it is than it is the most important thing to a human, EVER. If Jesus' purpose on earth was to keep us out of Hell™ why didn't He ever say so? Why didn't any of the NT or OT authors say so? Heck, Jesus was talking about cutting off your hand rather than being thrown into "Hell". Why didn't He take a moment to explain that HE is the only way to escape Hell™?

For ever and ever and ever and ever and ever…

Jesus spoke using the vernacular and phrasing that the Jews did at that time. When you look at all the times in the OT where prophets are pronouncing judgment from God on nations, peoples, tribes, etc, you will see many examples of endless fire or unquenchable fire(Jer 7:20 & 17:27, Eze20:47 & 48), smoke rising forever(Isa 34:10), etc. Clearly the fires eventually went out. Clearly the meanings of these words are not as scientifically specific as modern theologians make them out to be when Jesus uses them. There are three explanations for this as far as I can see. First, the words for eternal, everlasting, etc. didn't mean what they mean now or have been translated incorrectly. Second, the meaning is symbolic; a form of bombastic prose signifying the totality of said event. Or third, the prophecies were just wrong. I lean towards one or two.

If Jesus was using the same words as the prophets, He should rightly expect his audience to assign those words the same meaning. If He had a new meaning for them, such as our modern Hell™, He damn well should have pointed that out. But there is no such explanation, correction, or even a sidebar about it. In contrast, Jesus was very clear about the new meaning he assigned the Old Covenant. And that's just rules about how to live your life. How much more important would it be to clarify a concept so profound it spells eternal torture for at least 90% of the population of the world?

When Jesus speaks of anything eternal and everlasting, keep in mind these other "eternal" things:

Jonah 2:6 I went down to the bottoms of the mountains; The earth with its bars closed upon me for ever (‛ôlâm ‛ôlâm): Yet hast thou brought up my life from the pit, O Jehovah my God.

Gen 17:13 He that is born in thy house, and he that is bought with thy money, must needs be circumcised: and my covenant shall be in your flesh for an everlasting covenant.

1Ch 16:15 Remember his covenant for ever, The word which he commanded to a thousand generations, 16 The covenant which he made with Abraham, And his oath unto Isaac, 17 And confirmed the same unto Jacob for a statute, To Israel for an everlasting (‛ôlâm ‛ôlâm)covenant,

So if you believe in an everlasting Hell™ because Jesus talks about everlasting fire, then you should also believe that there is no such thing as a New Covenant, (Since the Old Covenant is everlasting) which effectively makes Christ and His teachings invalid. Also, Jonah is still in the belly of a whale and will be forever. Here are a few other things that last forever:

Exo 21:6 then his master shall bring him unto God, and shall bring him to the door, or unto the door-post; and his master shall bore his ear through with an awl; and he shall serve him for ever.

Jos 4:7 … and these stones shall be for a memorial unto the children of Israel for ever.

Jos 14:9 And Moses sware on that day, saying, Surely the land whereon thy foot hath trodden shall be an inheritance to thee and to thy children for ever, because thou hast wholly followed Jehovah my God

1Sa 1:22 But Hannah went not up; for she said unto her husband, I will not go up until the child be weaned; and then I will bring him, that he may appear before Jehovah, and there abide for ever.

Gen 48:4 and said unto me, Behold, I will make thee fruitful, and multiply thee, and I will make of thee a company of peoples, and will give this land to thy seed after thee for an everlasting possession.

Gen 49:26 The blessings of thy father Have prevailed above the blessings of my progenitors Unto the utmost bound of the everlasting hills

2Ki 5:27 The leprosy therefore of Naaman shall cleave unto thee, and unto thy seed for ever. And he went out from his presence a leper as white as snow.

Psa 148:3 Praise ye him, sun and moon: Praise him, all ye stars of light. 4 Praise him, ye heavens of heavens, And ye waters that are above the heavens. 5 Let them praise the name of Jehovah; For he commanded, and they were created 6 He hath also established them for ever and ever

So here we have a slave who serves his master forever (who dies), a pile of stones for a memorial that lasts forever (that isn't around anymore), an everlasting inheritance (that didn't last forever), a child who will stay in the temple forever (who eventually died and a temple that was eventually destroyed), land given to a people as an eternal inheritance (that isn't owned by them anymore), everlasting hills (that erode and will eventually go away), a leprous curse that infects a family forever (even though eventually everyone will be dead), and the sun, moon, stars, and celestial waters that are established forever (that will all pass away). …

… In the words of Inigo Montoya from The Princess Bride: "You keep using that word… I do not think it means what you think it means." (not directed to Jesus or the prophets, but to their translators) So why is it when Jesus uses that word we take it to mean eternal-after-death when that's not what the Jews ever meant by the word? Their 'eternal' meant lasting for a person's life, or stretching out into unknown time, or eon. Sure, if you translate it as eternal it can fit in some places, but that doesn’t mean it's accurate, does it? I could translate the word for 'wool' (erion) in Revelation 1:14 as 'milk'. Then it would say:

Rev 1:14 And his head and his hair were white as white milk, white as snow; and his eyes were as a flame of fire;

And it would make sense in that context because milk is white. But then if I applied it constantly I would get:

Heb 9:19 … he took the blood of the calves and the goats, with water and scarlet milk and hyssop, and sprinkled both the book itself and all the people,

Now anybody would call that a poor translation. So why don't we see that the words aion, aonios, olam, etc. don't mean eternal in many contexts and reject the translating job? Why do we prefer doctrines invented in Egypt? Consider this: Moses was taught all about Egyptian religion and politics. He knew the Egyptian royalty relied on keeping the masses fearful of a fiery afterlife. And yet when he is placed in charge of his people he utterly rejects the idea.

So how did we get from the Old Testament which is utterly silent on the matter of Hell™, to Jesus using the concept of Hades as a teaching tool?

In the several hundred year gap between the last of the prophets and the birth of Christ an awful lot of significant stuff happened to the Jews. It's pretty easy to see where gentile ideas and philosophies could have influenced their culture. After the Babylonian captivity and Alexander the Great pulling in all sorts of new ideas into the region, then the subsequent Greek and Roman adaptations of Egyptian and oriental religious ideas, the area was a hot bed for bad ideas. It should come as no surprise to anyone who read the Old Testament that the Jews were less than faithful to the revelations they had received. And since they had never developed or received theology concerning the afterlife there was a big hole just waiting to be filled. But we don't even need to look outside of the Bible to find ample evidence of this fact.

1Ti 6:20 O Timothy, guard that which is committed unto thee, turning away from the profane babblings and oppositions of the knowledge which is falsely so called; 21 which some professing have erred concerning the faith…

Col 2:8 Take heed lest there shall be any one that maketh spoil of you through his philosophy and vain deceit, after the tradition of men, after the rudiments of the world, and not after Christ:

Col 2:18 Let no man rob you of your prize by a voluntary humility and worshipping of the angels, dwelling in the things which he hath seen, vainly puffed up by his fleshly mind,

1Ti 1:4 neither to give heed to fables and endless genealogies, which minister questionings, rather than a dispensation of God which is in faith;…

1Co 15:12 Now if Christ is preached that he hath been raised from the dead, how say some among you that there is no resurrection of the dead?

2Pe 2:1 But there arose false prophets also among the people, as among you also there shall be false teachers, who shall privily bring in destructive heresies, denying even the Master that bought them, bringing upon themselves swift destruction.

Mat 22:28 In the resurrection therefore whose wife shall she be of the seven? for they all had her. 29 But Jesus answered and said unto them, Ye do err, not knowing the scriptures, nor the power of God.

Jesus was answering Sadducees who don't even believe in an afterlife, but His answer still shows that there was a lot more thought put into life after death than there was in the OT. And that the thought was wrong. I think it's easiest to be swayed on an issue that is not resolute in your mind than one you haven't thought about a great deal. And since the OT scripture is so silent on the issue of life after death, that left a gaping hole in Jewish religious thought that was filled with gentile myths. And when Jesus taught He used the ideas of the day to get His point across.

Besides Hades, He used the word geenna which as I already mentioned, was a valley just outside Jerusalem where they threw the garbage, and occasionally really bad criminals. It was a very shameful execution. That's where they'd throw you if stoning was too good for you. They kept the dump on fire continually. And as you can imagine, there were a lot of flies and maggots in there. It was the ultimate physical example of filth and torment available at the time. (I'm sure if Jesus was alive today He would have used Detroit as an example instead.) This is the place Jesus said it was better to cut off your own hand or foot than to be thrown into. He said the Scribes and Pharisees made converts that were "twice the child of geenna" than they were. It was quite a dramatic metaphor and precisely matches the way the prophets of old spoke.

Does God have double standards?

Another issue with the modern conception of Hell™ is that it would be the only standard that God holds us to without having that standard for Himself. With the exceptions of Hope and Faith since He knows and sees all. So let's say "the only behavioral standards." He teaches us to love because He is Love. He tells us to be merciful because He is merciful. He tells us to be patient, kind, joyful, etc. because these are fruits of His spirit.

The fact that there is a Jesus Christ is the most powerful testament to this concept. God incarnated so that He could identify with us and show us how one ought to be. If Christ's only mission on earth was to die than he could have died in childbirth and that would have been the end of it. But there was clearly something greater happening here. A God who is not simply shouting orders from the heavens, but rather One who lives His own commands. Trough Christ we know what patience, mercy, love, and all those other ideals look like.

But when it comes to Justice, we are told, God puts all those attributes aside and meats out "justice" with everlasting torment. Even though every human institution in the world and every fiber of our being tells us that that is NOT justice. That is not fair. That is not the 'just recompense' spoken of in Hebrews 2:2. Like I pointed out earlier: the just recompense for sin, according to the Bible, is death.

In every other noble ideal we have an example from God. Indeed, our ideals of love, mercy, and the like come from God. So why would justice be any different? Why is it in that one instance God decides to have a completely different standard than us? Why does justice mean one thing to us, and something different to God? I believe it is because we misinterpret the words aion and olam. Not because God has a double standard.

But what about vengeance? Isn't that a double standard. God tells us not to do it, that vengeance is His alone. Well that's no more a double standard than a father not allowing his child to spank their siblings. But then, if God is how we moderns interpret Him, that father would turn around and spank little Jimmy an infinite number of times for hitting his brother. No matter how you slice it you can't get away from the fact that Hell™ goes against every other attribute God has revealed to us! Think of the absolute worst crime possible. Think of Hitler or a child molester. They do crimes that bring horror into the lives of those around them. Often that horror lasts an entire lifetime. But then, the victim dies eventually. The victim may have been so damaged that they in turn damage others around them. Sins stretching out down the generations and such. But eventually, everybody dies. So if you take Hitler or a child molester and put them in a torture chamber for the amount of time equal to what their victims (and even their victim's victims) experienced, you would still eventually hit a limit. It would be over at some point. And I guarantee you, no matter how vindictive a person was, no matter how vengeful, if they were the ones dispensing the torture, they would eventually break down and stop doing it. But we have calculated a god that would never stop. Who would break every rule of Justice in order to satisfy his vengeance. But even that's not quite right, because that vengeance would never be satisfied since we are talking about eternity here. I realize this is a bit philosophical: but if Justice requires eternity to be fulfilled, how can the concept exist? In other words, Justice would never be fulfilled because a requirement for it to be fulfilled would never come… being infinite and all.

So we believe when Jesus tells us to love our enemies, He really hates His enemies. When He tells us to turn the other cheek, He will do the opposite at the end of the world. When He tells us to forgive 70 times 7, He will stop forgiving at the Judgment Seat. When He tells us to be merciful, "even as our Father is merciful", He was excluding Judgment day, because that's when God will change and become vindictive.

We are told our Gospel is Good News. But if the goodness of it is exclusive only to a select few, and terribly, terribly bad for everyone else, how is that good news? I'm certainly not happy to have my own butt covered while everyone else gets theirs roasted! If I was in a plane crash and everyone died except for me I wouldn't call the event good news. That would be horrible news!

The fear is what keeps us here

Let's look at the practical ramifications if there is no Hell™. (Remember, I'm not saying there is no Judgment or lake of fire!) Well, first of all, Justice will be served in the lake of fire Judgment, then all will be united in God and He will be "all in all".

That's if Hell™ doctrine is wrong.

Here are some natural objections I see from someone who believes in Hell™, towards someone like me who does not.

Q. If there is no Hell™ than why bother preaching to anyone?

A. First, because I love people and want them to be saved from their sins. And second, because God loves them and told me to.

Q. If there is no Hell™ why should anyone bother to be good and moral?

A. If a belief in Hell™ is the reason that a person is good and moral than they are not acting out of Love. And if they don't love God, than what's the point of being good and moral? Good and moral does not bring salvation. Only Jesus does.

Q. Well if everyone will get saved after they die, why does it matter if they are a Christian or not?

A. The Bible says that Christians are the first fruits. It's an amazing privilege! How could you not care about that, and want everyone you know to share in it with you?! I want everyone to know the Joy of being saved from their sins and living for Christ. (Note I didn't say the happiness of living for Christ.)

Q. What if you are wrong and everyone you preach to is deceived?

A. Here are my options: 1. Stop sharing my faith. 2. Share a version of the faith I no longer believe in. 3. Share my faith as I believe it while risking my eternal soul and the souls of those around me. I'm going to get into this in more depth in my next entry. But for now, let's say I'm going with option 3. If I'm wrong then I'll be burning right alongside them. But there is also the fear factor. Not the T.V. show. But there is the idea that the fear of Hell™ can help push a person over to acceptance. But I wonder if someone who converts to Christianity because they are afraid is really a Christian. I'm not saying that they can't eventually become one after some acclimation process. But before that… When they are just afraid of being tortured for being bad… is that truly what salvation is?

Here's where I want to jump off the Q & A format to examine this idea. What is the salvific purpose of fear? What does the Bible tell us about it? Well the first thing that occurs to me are all the Psalms like:

Psa 111:10 The fear of Jehovah is the beginning of wisdom; A good understanding have all they that do his commandments: His praise endureth for ever.

And to that I say "Amen"! Until you have had that awful epiphany that there is a God and He is more powerful than you can imagine and could squish you like a bug, there really isn't much hope for you. Every human has to get through that door before they can begin to understand God and His ways. The Psalmist follows by saying that if you're smart, you'll obey His commandments. You could tie that good behavior to the fear, but I see the words 'wisdom' and 'understanding' sandwiched between those concepts. Once you have attained the wisdom that the fear of God brings, your understanding will propel you to good works. I don't think we should interpret that verse to say we should do good works because we are afraid. And even if we do, it doesn’t tell us what kind of fear of God that is.

Now what is the difference between a God Who can strike you dead at any moment and a god who can torture you for eternity? Does the fear of one or the other motivate a person better? Does one kind of fear bring a person closer to accepting the sacrifice of Jesus that saves them from their sin? I submit to you that the fear of a God Who can strike you dead at any moment is equally efficacious as the fear of a god who can torture you for all eternity. And I further submit, that the fear of a God Who can take your life is appropriate and more in line with the way God reveals Himself to be in scripture.

We are told to fear God, we are not told to fear Hell™. Hell™ is not necessary to instill the proper fear in a person that begins their journey towards wisdom and salvation. And I have a feeling that it turns far more people away than it draws.

While looking into all the verses about fear I noticed a trend. The first thing God and His angles have to tell people whenever they see them is not to fear. Why do you suppose that is? My guess is that they wouldn't be able to deliver their message very well if the recipient is groveling in the dirt, peeing their robes. In other words: God wants to communicate with us. Communion. While fear is the beginning of wisdom, it's not the end. God doesn't want a bunch of terrified subjects. He wants sons and daughters. He wants to be in relation with us. If I held a gun to my kid's heads and told them to obey me or I'd kill them, I'd have some very obedient kids. But I don't think they would love me. And we need to ask ourselves: at the root of Christianity, is the point to be moral or to love God? Obviously we will attempt to be moral if we love God. But it is common to find a person who is moral but does not love God.

But can we expect good works from people who don't believe in Hell™? If you are aguing for Hell™ based on an assumption that it's necessary for good works then it would follow that people who do believe in Hell™ should be pretty good people, huh? Or at least better behaved than average. Well the Egyptians, Greek and Romans all believed in Hell™. History shows how good they were. How close to God they were.

Fire as a symbol

Is the idea of fire as a tool for eternal punishment found anywhere in the Bible except the parables Jesus used quoting OT verses? How does God use fire?

What I've learned from studying fire in the Bible is that it is a tool that God uses for punishment and purification. The punishing fire destroys. Like Sodom, the tares, the enemies of God, etc. The question is: is the fire of destruction different than the fire of purification? If God has stated that His will is to save all, (Eph 1:11 & 1John 2:2) and He is a consuming fire, and we are baptized with fire, and all wickedness is thrown into fire… why separate them all as different processes? Death and destruction is the prerequisite for salvation and rebirth. We are being tried by fire constantly. We are told to die to ourselves. Baptism is a symbol of that. So why do we assume that those thrown into the Lake of Fire are there simply to be punished forever? (Besides a translation error.) Why wouldn't it be a process of purification? George MacDonald puts it beautifully, speaking of the combination of burning and love:

"Nothing is inexorable but love. For love loves unto purity. Love has ever in view the absolute loveliness of that which it beholds. Therefore all that is not beautiful in the beloved, all that comes between and is not of love's kind, must be destroyed. 'Our God is a consuming fire.' It is the nature of love, so terribly pure that it destroys all that is not pure. It is not that the fire will burn us if we do not worship God, but that the fire will burn us until we worship thus; yea, that will go on within us, after all that is foreign to us has yielded to its force, no longer with pain and consuming, but as the highest consciousness of life, the presence of God."

It interesting that there are all these different words in the Bible that are superimposed over each other to create our picture of Hell™. It's particularly hilarious to me that anyone would combine the descriptions of the Lake of Fire with Geenna and Hades. In the Old Testament, Death and Sheol are often partnered. They are a natural mix. Everyone died then went down to Sheol. (Sometimes translated grave, pit, or hell.) So when we read in Revelation about the duo of "Death and Hell" we see a few things that just don't match up with our conception of Hell™. For starters, they are following a pale horse around, then later they give up their dead, (I thought the dead were in Hell™ forever!) and finally, they are thrown into a lake of fire along with those who's names are not written in the Book of Life. How the hell is Hell™ thrown into Hell™? Well it's all symbolic of course. It's describing concepts that the human brain can't understand.

But one thing we can understand is consistency of words. And understanding Hades/Sheol as burning, eternal agony is NOT consistent with the Biblical contexts that these words are in. And understanding aion and it's derivatives as eternal or infinite is not consistent with the Biblical contexts that the words are in. Assuming that Jesus spoke only in parables as He said, but then pretending the story of Lazarus and the Rich man is not a parable is not consistent. Reading the descriptions of the physical area known as Geenna in the OT with fire that burns 'forever' and understanding it is a physical area; but then when Jesus talks about it using the same words assuming that it's a description of an eternal Hell™ that's exactly like the one the Egyptians invented is inconsistent. To look at all the verses that state very plainly that Jesus will save all of creation, while believing otherwise is not consistent.

Sin and Justice

I hope the careful reader will note that these arguments are not based on any of the following:

  1. A desire to avoid the indictment or seriousness of sin.
  2. A desire for a neutered god who is just a jolly old chap who wouldn't hurt a fly.
  3. A desire to make all religions equal.

The reason I feel a need to point this out is because that's what I always assumed Christian Universalism was all about. Turns out those are the Unitarians. It also turns out there is a long tradition of Universalism in the Catholic church. Like I pointed out earlier, it appears that there were no writings about an eternal Hell™ from the church fathers until the fourth of fifth century.

So I want to address each of those ideas about possible motives for turning to a Universalistic idea of the Gospel. First, the idea that Christ will save all does not in any way undermine the work that He did to bring us all that salvation, or the purpose for it. We are all terribly broken beings. Completely unworthy and unready to belong to the family of God through any work of our own. Sin is deadly serious. It separates us from God and Christ is the only solution to that dilemma. Our sins must be burned away though some process or another. All of our works will be judged at it won't be a pleasant experience. All that talk of burning and gnashing teeth comes into play here.

Secondly, God is not our buddy. He is the almighty creator of the universe. He sustains all things. He holds the power of life and death. He is not to be trifled with or disrespected. He is also love. And He is ferocious. And I don't believe those are contradictory, or that He flips from one to the other like a manic depressive. I believe He is the ferocious lover of all of His creation.

I want to talk a bit about anthropopathism and anthropomorphism. That is: the projection of human emotions or forms onto that which is not human. We all recognize anthropomorphic phrases in the OT when applied to God. We know He is not a physical man but He is described as stretching out His hand, or darkness under His feet. Smoke out of His nostrils and fire out of His mouth. Of course we don't take these things literally. They are true, but not literally true. But when it comes to emotions or reasoning that are attributed to Him, we take it as literal. Which is strange when these attributed emotions or thoughts plainly contradict what He says about Himself. The classic case of this is when Moses 'convinces' God not to destroy His people. And God "changed His mind". How odd that a God who declares Himself to be the same yesterday, today, and forever, would change His mind about something. Am I calling Moses a liar or that scripture false? Of course not. It is true but not literally true. God changed His mind from a human's perspective. God threatened to do something that He knew Moses would object to. It appeared that He relented, when He was never going to do it in the first place. (Unless He had planned from the beginning to change His mind, in which case it still does not constitute a true reversal of intent.)

Here are some other things the Bible says about God that would radically impact our theology if we were to take them literally:

Gen 3:9 And Jehovah God called unto the man, and said unto him, Where art thou?

Gen 18:20 And Jehovah said, Because the cry of Sodom and Gomorrah is great, and because their sin is very grievous; 21 I will go down now, and see whether they have done altogether according to the cry of it, which is come unto me; and if not, I will know.

I hope none of my gentle readers think that God doesn't know what's going on down here on earth until He comes down to check it out for Himself.

Psa 78:65 Then the Lord awaked as one out of sleep, Like a mighty man that shouteth by reason of wine.

And I especially hope that no one thinks that God sleeps while bad stuff happens then get's up and shouts like a drunkard! What we are clearly looking at is a view of God from a man's perspective. We don't make doctrine from this stuff because it's clearly not literally true. But then we say the stuff about God being wrathful and jealous and hateful and vengeful is literally true -not from our perspective, which is the whole tenor of the Bible- but we actually assign feelings to Him that would be a sin for us. I'm not saying God can't do whatever He wants or feel things we should not and still be just and holy. I'm saying that the much clearer vision we get of God in the New Testament is that He leads by example. And if the Old Testament writers spoke from their position, clearly projecting human feelings and intentions on God, (As I just showed.) than we should interpret all such descriptions in the same way. (Rather than picking the ones that sound like they would fit a god who would create beings with the express purpose of roasting them eternally.)

Again, this in no way is an attempt to neuter God or diminish the absolute solemnity, fear and respect we should hold for Him. In fact, it does just the opposite. It is to declare God to be above the petty emotional sins that hamper us humans because of our broken nature. It is to declare God utterly perfect, and beyond our ability to understand. I'm sure jealously and hatred are pretty close analogies to how God feels. But I'm also sure that hatred is evil, and God is not evil and God does not hate anyone in the modern meaning of that word. When the Bible says He hated Esau, it's clearly saying that He did not show Esau the favor that He showed to Jacob. Or do you suppose that Jesus was contradicting Himself when He said we have to hate our father and mother, wife and children to follow Him? (Luke 14:26)

So are you seeing a pattern here? The prose of the ancient Jewish people was filled with bombastic, hyperbolic, poetic expressions that should never be taken literally. The smoke and fire is not rising forever. God is not a tree stretching His branches over the people. God doesn't love some, while hating others. (God is not a respecter of persons!) All of these descriptions are from a human's point of view and are flawed because He had not revealed Himself as much as He did with Christ. That in no way undermines the Old Testament or what it has to teach us. It simply shows that we have to read poetry as poetry, not a how-to manual or news report. To project our 21st century scientific method or systematic theology on an eastern culture's writings from 4,000 years ago is just asking for trouble. And it's equally as foolish to write the whole thing off as the imagination of wandering goat herders. We should approach the writings of God's chosen people as humble learners, setting aside our assumptions and all the 'answers' that science has provided. But also within the framework of the revelations and clarifications that Christ brought with Him. So calling God's hatred, anger, and jealously anthropopathic in no way diminishes His holiness or demand for perfection and judgment of sin.

The last item I wanted to address was any charge that a belief in Christian Universalism is based on a desire for all religions to be equal and valid. I guess I side with C.S. Lewis on this issue. There is one correct answer, and some that are closer than others. Christian Universalism does not undermine that at all. It says Christ IS the answer. There are no others. It simply says that Christ's victory is complete instead of partial, and that this life is not the complete picture. How anyone could see that as un-Christian is beyond me.

Try reading the following verses without the filter of a preconceived notion of a partial salvation.

Could I come up with a list of proof-texts that overpower this list? Not if they are translated correctly.

Luke 2:30 For mine eyes have seen thy salvation, 31 Which thou hast prepared before the face of all peoples;

Luke 3:5 Every valley shall be filled, And every mountain and hill shall be brought low; And the crooked shall become straight, And the rough ways smooth; 6 And all flesh shall see the salvation of God.

Luke 19:10 For the Son of man came to seek and to save that which was lost.

Col 1:20 Through him he also reconciled all things to himself, whether things on earth or things in heaven, thus making peace through the blood of his cross.

Heb 2:2 For if the word spoken through angels proved stedfast, and every transgression and disobedience received a just recompense of reward;

Psa 30:5 For his anger is but for a moment; His favor is for a life-time: Weeping may tarry for the night, But joy cometh in the morning.

John 17:2 For you have given him authority over all humanity so that he might give eternal life to all those you gave him.

Luke 15:4 "What man of you, having a hundred sheep, if he has lost one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the open country, and go after the one that is lost, until he finds it?

John 12:32 And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men unto myself.

Isa 25:6 And in this mountain will Jehovah of hosts make unto all peoples a feast of fat things, a feast of wines on the lees, of fat things full of marrow, of wines on the lees well refined. 7 And he will destroy in this mountain the face of the covering that covereth all peoples, and the veil that is spread over all nations.8 He hath swallowed up death for ever; and the Lord Jehovah will wipe away tears from off all faces; and the reproach of his people will he take away from off all the earth: for Jehovah hath spoken it.

Rom 11:32 For God has consigned all to disobedience, that he may have mercy on all.

John 3:17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.

John 10:16 And other sheep I have, which are not of this fold: them also I must bring, and they shall hear my voice: and they shall become one flock, one shepherd.

John 1:29 The next day he saw Jesus coming toward him, and said, "Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!

Tit 2:11 For the grace of God hath appeared, bringing salvation to all people,

Eph 1:11 in whom also we were made a heritage, having been foreordained according to the purpose of him who worketh all things after the counsel of his will;

Act 3:20 and that he may send the Christ who hath been appointed for you, even Jesus: 21 whom the heaven must receive until the times of restoration of all things, whereof God spake by the mouth of His holy prophets that have been from of old.

1John 2:2 and he is the propitiation for our sins; and not for ours only, but also for the whole world.